Q: I am not a morning person. I don't sleep late; I just need time to wake up and ease into the day. My 4-year-old generally wakes up between 6 and 6:30 with an immediate, loud, insistent request that someone play with him. My husband gets up early and often does morning duty, which works great, but he travels about one week per month for work. When he's traveling, my son tends to wake up extra early (5:30ish), drags me out of bed, and immediately starts harassing me about playing Legos or hide-and-seek or some game he invented. I'm having a really hard time engaging with him in a productive way when I'm still half asleep. I generally try to tell him that he needs to play by himself while I do the morning chores (making breakfast, making lunches, showering, COFFEE), which usually works for about three minutes before he gets frustrated and resorts to throwing toys around (or at me). I get that he wants attention and that negative attention will do in a pinch. However, it's just not realistic for me to play with him for a long stretch of time in the morning when we're trying to get ready, and I'm a pretty terrible playmate then, anyway. I think we probably have a larger issue around helping him to develop some independence (he's an only child and is extremely attention-hungry despite getting tons of attention), but, for the time being, working on our solo-parent mornings would be a positive step. Any suggestions for starting out mornings on a better foot?
A: Many, many parents have extraordinarily early mornings with their children, so thank you for this note. You are not alone. I do have many "suggestions for starting out mornings on a better foot," but you may not like all of them.
When I read your note, I saw two inherent problems: one, you have a child who wakes at 5:30 (and that is early) and two, you don't seem to realize that you only have one week a month to deal with this, hence focusing on the wrong thing.
Let's first look at the issue of the early-waking child. I have worked with parents of early-rising children for a long time, and I have yet to meet people who have successfully forced their 4-year-olds to sleep in more and to entertain themselves for long stretches of time.
There are certainly instances where children have sleep and/or medical issues that are interfering, and if you think that is your situation, please see your doctor. Otherwise, this is your child, and from one non-morning person to another, I get it. I can no sooner play Legos at 5:30 a.m. than I can build an airplane, and yet it's a fool's errand to think we are going to change your 4-year-old.
Accept that you have an early riser, and accept that your son will not be able to entertain himself for very long in the morning. The typical 4-year-old is ready to play, and your son also appears hungry to play with you. There is a funny dynamic that happens when we keep pushing children off: They seem to want to glom onto us more! We need to figure out a way to (a) sleep a little more, (b) respect his development and (c) get everything done with as little hassle and upset as possible.
Here are my ideas:
1. Create a feasible plan for the week your spouse is gone. Shower and make lunches the night before, and have the breakfast table set with some overnight oats ready to go. Have both of your clothes laid out and your work bag by the door. Always give yourself 20 minutes of "fudge" time; this is time where you are prepared for things to go wrong. Shoes get lost, potties need to be used and little toys need to be located. No morning is perfect, so build time into your schedule.
2. As for first thing in the morning, because we know that your son will not self-entertain, put on "Sesame Street," "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" or any slower-paced show when he wakes up. Use your iPad or laptop and put it right in bed with you! I prefer a slowly paced show for young brains, but any age-appropriate show will do.
3. Taking small tasks out of the morning will give you 10 or 15 minutes of floor time with your son. Create a short list of what you can do together (Legos, hide-and-seek, etc.) and set the timer. Play with him until the timer goes off and then proceed with the morning. He may protest, but if you keep up this routine, he will adapt.
4. Four-year-olds are expert doers. A 4-year-old loves to feel significant and important, so give your son jobs! Can he dish up the oatmeal or put cereal into the bowls? Can he put the shoes in front of the door with your keys? Can he be in charge of making sure doors are locked, seat belts on? A bored 4-year-old makes lots of trouble, so give him some checklists.
5. Speaking of boredom, it is appropriate and needed for your child to not be entertained. It is a losing battle thinking that you can play and get ready to leave. While his whining will chip away at your soul, he is building the resilience that he needs to cope with not getting what he wants as he gets older. The more you can weather his crying, the better off for him down the road.
The order of the mornings is connection, then direction. If you take the time to have a bit of fun, be silly, sing and be as lighthearted as you can, your son will become more amenable. Do your best to remember that, and before you know it, you will have a young man who won't want to get out of bed.